Oliver Cross: A night may be a long time in geology... but not politics

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On a walking tour of the rugged coast of Pembrokeshire in Wales (travel tip: it’s as impressive as Cornwall but nearer and cheaper), I slept in a sea-front B&B overlooking a rock arch created by differential wave erosion on the cliff face.

The next morning, the arch was gone. The top of it had collapsed, leaving the cliff face on one side, a pillar of stone (the technical word is stack) on the other and a pile of fallen rocks in between.

This was surprising because the coastal landscape usually takes shape in geological time, measured in millions or many thousands of years and unnoticeable unless you’re Methuselah, but this happened overnight.

Which (to change the subject, because my knowledge of geomorphology has its limits), can happen in politics, too. Things which seemed as fixed as mountains or rock formations can collapse with breathtaking speed – the slave trade, King Coal, the apartheid system, the thousand-year Reich, the Iron Curtain, the troubles in Northern Ireland (we hope)... everything is as changeable as this month’s weather, which is to say, very.

But the one thing which has seemed unchangeable - which most of the press and the bottomlessly-funded right-wing think-tanks have told us is an immutable fact of life - is that Britain will never be able to move beyond the 1970s-based Reagan/Thatcher model of capitalism.

This involves removing all restraints on the rich becoming much richer, so that their wealth can trickle down to ordinary voters; a fiction which only worked for a while, although actually quite a long while since it spanned the Thatcher-Major-Blair and Brown administrations and is still going strong.

However, as I was astounded to find in Pembrokeshire that morning, structures written in stone can be overturned. Suddenly Martin McGuinness and the Rev Ian Paisley are sharing a joke, Nelson Mandela is cheering on the Springboks rugby team and Wile E. Coyote, after being tricked by Road Runner into running over a cliff, carries on regardless until he suddenly realises his predicament, does a panic face and plunges to the ground (which is a pretty exact metaphor for what happened to the world banking system in 2008.)

Now we see another previously-unimaginable phenomenon; an allegedly left-wing book is heading the US best-sellers list, even though it’s written by a Frenchman. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has become, like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, a must-have book although it’s probably been bought by more people than it’s been read by.

I really will get round to reading Piketty’s book (although it may take some time and I may have to skip some of the technical chapters) because, from the reviews, it says what I’ve been saying – frequently in this column - for years; that we have an economic system which, whatever its intentions, ensures that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and it can’t go on much longer.

Except that, as I learn from the controversy rather then the book, Piketty tells us exactly why we’re in the state we’re in and provides us with enough unarguable statistics to leave right-wing commentators spluttering into their spittoons.

The difficulty is that his remedy involves taxing ever-growing wealth rather than ever-declining earnings, which, says the right, would turn us into North Korea.

No it wouldn’t, but it might turn us into a north European country with a fairer idea of how people can live decent lives. It won’t, given the vested interests involved, happen easily, but it might, like many other things in our fluid, capitalist world, happen much more quickly than you’d think.

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